“The story of my family. . .changes with the teller.”
One of the things that I appreciate about American Indian storytellers is that they preface their stories with a statement: “This is the truth as I know it at this time.” I think that this is a statement all of us should make when making a statement when it comes to telling stories . . . especially when it comes to family. There are lots of versions of my family’s story . . . primarily because each of involved in the story see and understand it from our own perspective. Rarely have any of us agreed on the so-called “official” version . . . and, we probably never will.
In graduate school I had the opportunity, unbeknownst to the class at the time, to take part in an experiment about observation. A person came into the classroom prior to the professor’s entrance, created a scene that involved the professor threatening to call the campus police, and then left. Those of us in the class were shocked at what we were witnessing. Then the professor turned to the class and asked, “What just happened?” Of course, in the retelling of the experience, each class member had different observations about what had happened . . . some were close to each other, others were quite different . . . but, somewhere in all of those stories was the truth. It depends upon who is telling the story.
So, it goes with family stories.
Over the years, whenever my family has gathered and told “family” stories, I have been aghast at how wrong those stories have been . . . especially when I am not the one telling the story. In the past, I found it my role to correct the stories . . . to get the facts straight . . . to make it right. The result? Most often it ended up with someone being offended because he or she was embarrassed because he or she was corrected. Feelings were hurt. I was called a pompous ass . . .
. . . and, I was. The fact is, we can only tell a story from our own experiences . . . from our own place within the story . . . and, rarely are those places the same for each individual. Thus, the story is different when seen through different eyes. What I saw, experienced, and know is my personal view of that situation in that time and place. Same goes for everyone else. To expect anything else is wrong. My goodness, look at how many books are written about history . . . here in Montana, there are thousands of books written about the Battle of Little Big Horn . . . which is the official story?
The official story is the one that is shared because it is the “truth as I know it” at this time and place in the journey. It may not be the same as someone else’s story, but it is as relevant, truthful, and meaningful as the story I told . . . at least to that person because that is how he or she understands that part of his or her life. Who am I to poop on that person’s experience?
“The story of my family . . . changes with the teller,” writes Jennifer Haigh. And, she is right. I can only speak for myself whenever I tell a story. I cannot speak for my brothers or sister . . . for my wife or children . . . for my friends . . . or anyone else. I can only ask that they accept my story as I understand it, as I must accept their understanding of the story as they tell it. Combined the stories create a whole . . . actually, more than a whole. Together it creates an understanding of who we are in the bigger picture of family . . . and, of life. It helps us to understand. To see my experience through the eyes of someone else opens me to more of myself and helps me to understand how others see me. I cannot do that if I insist that mine is the only story.
So, this is the truth as I know it right now . . . in this time and place. With age I have come to appreciate those times when family and friends gather, tell stories, laugh and cry . . . I have come to understand myself better . . . I have come to understand them better. And, besides, sometimes their stories are better than mine. Within them all is the truth . . . you just have to listen.